First-Year Connections: Easing the Transition from High School to College

A group of high school seniors recently attended First Year Connections, where NJIT students help acclimate incoming freshmen to campus life.

The transition from high school to college can be daunting. So NJIT does all it can, as early as it can, to ease that transition for high school seniors who've enrolled in NJIT.

Nearly 200 seniors, for instance, recently attended NJIT’s First Year Connections, a day-long orientation program for incoming freshmen. And this week, hundreds more seniors/incoming freshmen will visit the campus. The aim of the orientation is simple: to acquaint the students with the campus life and with each other. The students spend the day learning about about course placement, financial aid, advising services, commuting versus dorm life  and other matters that will help them get settled and to succeed in the fall.

But they also spend a good portion of the day having fun. They play group games on the campus green, have lunch, and hang out with current NJIT students -- peer leaders -- who encourage the students to relax and open up. By day’s end, the hope is that the seniors will have learned a bit about college life and made some new friends -- fellow classmates who they’ll see again in September.  What follows is a brief overview -- a few scenes or snippets -- from the recent First Year Connections.

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On a recent sun-bathed morning, the peer leaders divided the seniors into groups and took them onto the campus green, where they stood in circles and played games like “Stinger,” “Shake Your Booty” and “Zoo” -- games whose intent was to break the ice and induce the students to loosen up. In between games, the leaders told the seniors about their experiences at NJIT. They also encouraged them to ask questions, some of which were, How hard are the classes? What happens if you switch your  major? Will my AP credits all be accepted?  What professors should I take? How hard is it to park on campus? And the most common question was this one: Is college much different than high school?

Thomas DeFries, a sophomore and a peer leader, said he asked the same question when he visited NJIT as a high school senior. So DeFries, now experienced, issued this response: “In college you have much more freedom than you do in high school,” he said. “But you also have much more responsibility. That makes college a lot like the real world.”

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Tamanna Kamra, a senior at Old Bridge High School, said she enjoyed the orientation --- the games and the info sessions. She’s not sure what she’ll major in, but she’s sure about one thing: her love of math.  She’s one of the few students in her senior class, she said, who really loves math. That’s why she wanted to come to a techie school that offered small classes and a close-knit campus. NJIT fit that bill perfectly, so she happily enrolled. 

“Everybody here is super-nerdy like me but in a good way, so I feel like I fit in,” she said.

Tamanna’s time in high school has dwindled down to its last few days. There’s the senior class trip to Disneyland, the upcoming senior prom, a few last days and that’s it -- the end of high school for her forever.  It’s a time of life, she said, that’s nerve-wracking and anxiety-producing. It was thus good to come to NJIT and meet her fellow classmates and learn what to expect from the first year of college.  

“I’m a planner by nature and I was kind of freaking out about college,”  said Tamanna. “I’m happy I came to this orientation.”        

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Erich Hauck, a senior at Pascack Valley High School, is a gamer and a guitarist, a computer science major who loves to code.  At NJIT, he intends to study programming and video games and  cyber security.  He’s a hipster, or rather a hippie, with long hair and a beard -- rock-stair thin -- and what drew him to NJIT, he said, was the passionate professors in the computer science department. 

“I visited a few colleges but at an open house the professors at NJIT were way more passionate about computer science,” said Erich. “That’s why I picked NJIT.”

His high school career is also fading to black: There’s the senior white-water rafting trip; a few last projects to do, then he’s all done with high school. What worries him most about college is the cost, he says.  He’ll need to find a part-time job to help pay his bills and he imagines it might be hard to balance work and study. But nevertheless he’s eager to start college in the fall.  

“I play guitar and know music theory,” Erich says. “I mix my own music and add it to the video games I make. But I’m also  into cyber security and look forward to learning more about that subject in September.”

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Parents of the freshmen were also invited to the orientation. But they had a different schedule, separate from their children. There were no ice-breaking games on the green for them. Rather, they attended info sessions directed by NJIT staff, who  answered their questions and assuaged their fears. If it’s hard for  students to make the jump from high school to college, it might be even harder for parents.

During lunch in the Campus Center, Mary Singer, whose son David is an incoming freshman, sat talking to other parents. They talked about how they liked the open and safe feel of the NJIT campus. They talked about the wealth of information they received at the info sessions (info on financial aid, parking, healthcare, residential life, counseling, safety, etc). But in the end, they talked about what was most on their minds: independence and freedom, not for them, but for their children.

It’s hard for a parent, especially with a first-born child, to let him  go, Singer said. David is not her first child, so she was relatively calm. But she read the anxiety in the faces of parents with firstborns.

“The hardest part about college, if your children goes away, is independence,” added Singer. “Many parents have a hard time handling that.  But the NJIT staff who talked to us today all gave us their emails and their websites. That helps a lot to reassure a parent.  The NJIT police officer who spoke to us, for example, told us that the campus intentionally doesn’t have a fence around it: ‘We are the fence that will keep your children safe,’ the officer said.”

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Another mother, Marianna Micolta, said her first-born child, Daniel, will not go away. He will commute to NJIT from home. Nonetheless she’s  worried about his ability to cope with independence. During high school, she overlooked his class work and monitored his comings and goings. Now, when college starts, things will be different. 

“I recently told Dan that when you start college you are in charge. You are responsible. It’s on you,” said Micolta. “I worry about him because college will be a big change.”

She said the info sessions helped assuage her fears, since she learned about all the support services that NJIT has for incoming freshmen.

“The staff members told me how I, as a parent, can stay in touch with the college,” said Micolta. “That made me feel much better.”  

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Come fall, William Zembricki will be a freshman -- a biology major in the Albert Dorman Honors College. He’s excited to live in the honors residence hall and to study hard -- he hopes to later attend med school -- and to live away from home (Marlboro, N.J.) for the first time. But what he’s most excited about is also the thing that most worries him. During high school, his parents made sure he tended to his studies. So did his teachers. But now,  it’s all on him.

“My parents kept on top of me big time in high school,” said William. “But right now, what I’m most excited about -- freedom -- is also what I’m most worried about. You need top grades to get into med school and I’ll try hard not to get too sidetracked -- maybe just a little sidetracked.

 By Robert Florida

This story is tagged: freshman orientation, first year connections . Or read more Feature Stories.